TORONTO – Leafs brass had to be smiling from their perch above the ice at MasterCard Centre. Morgan Rielly, the fifth overall pick in last month's draft made a noticeable presence at the club's annual prospect camp in Toronto, flashing glimpses of game-changing potential from the back-end.
“I think we're delighted with Morgan Rielly,” said Jim Hughes, the organization's director of player development. “And it's not a surprise, it's what we expected.”
With a fluid stride, heads-up vision and knack for making plays, Rielly was a standout among the assembled prospects at the four-day event, which also included Tyler Biggs and Stuart Percy, a pair of first round picks from 2011.
A persistent threat to join the rush with the ability to read the play and return defensively, Rielly offered snapshots of ready-made NHL ability, all the more enticing when envisioned alongside higher talent.
“Sometimes the learning curve could be vast,” said Hughes, noting Rielly's improvement from Monday until the camp's conclusion on Thursday, “[but] it was evident when he carried that puck up the ice a few times and moved it and [played] with intelligence, you say ‘My goodness, what do we have here?', like maybe we need to continue to reassess this a little bit more, maybe he's ahead of the curve.”
The early July prospect camp has proven to be a springboard of sorts in the past. Viktor Stalberg was a man among boys at the staging in 2009, steamrolling through the subsequent prospect tournament in Kitchener before swiping an unlikely spot on the Leafs opening day roster. Just last year, Jake Gardiner oozed potential at the prospect gathering before snatching a job at main camp in the fall.
“It's almost like Jake here a little bit last year,” Hughes said carefully. “I'm not comparing the two, but he was a man on a mission and [Matt] Frattin was a few years ago. They come in here and they have something on their mind and they really won't let anybody get in their way.”
While suitably encouraged with the earliest returns, expectations remain in check. Rielly is likely to return to Moose Jaw this fall and is not expected to compete for a job with the Leafs come training camp. President and General Manager Brian Burke noted after the June draft in Pittsburgh that while the B.C. native could be fast-tracked to the NHL, “we're certainly not expecting him to play this year”.
A six-foot defender with the Warriors, the 18-year-old Rielly was shelved with a torn ACL for all but 18 games last season, racing back for a return in the Western League playoffs.